Lack of student engagement during COVID-19-related remote learning, an issue nationwide and locally, was addressed in the Wilkes County Board of Education meeting Monday night.

Twenty-one percent (1,842) of students in the Wilkes schools were failing more than one class at the end of this year’s first nine-week grading period and 1,210 of them weren’t considered engaged, said Dr. Donna Cotton, the school district’s chief academic officer.

She said these 1,842 students included 538 (20%) in high school and 734 (35%) in middle school, with 173 of the high school students and 664 of the middle school students not being engaged.

It also included 570 (15%) of elementary students, but they aren’t given pass/fail grades so “not showing academic growth” is used. Among the 570 elementary students, 373 weren’t engaged.

“Those are high numbers, but we know a large number of those (resulted) from not being engaged and not doing the work — not because they don’t understand it,” said Cotton. The percentage of elementary students is lowest likely because parental involvement is greatest with youngest students, she added.

Not being engaged includes not turning in assigned academic work, not being present or participating and not doing the bare minimum, she said.

All students in the Wilkes schools had fulltime remote learning the last three months of last year. It continued this year until all Wilkes schools started alternating between remote and in person learning each day (Plan B) on Sept. 8.

Middle and high schools are still using Plan B but elementary schools went to full-time in-person learning (Plan A) at the start of the second nine-week grading period on Oct. 20. Cotton said more elementary students became engaged and showed academic growth after the switch to Plan A.

Cotton said student nonengagement is more of a problem among the 1,797 students in all grade levels who opted to continue remote learning fulltime (Plan C), but it’s an issue for some middle and high school students in Plan B.

She said middle and high school principals told her recently that it was rumored among their students that failing course grades wouldn’t be given this year. She said this false rumor likely resulted from a no-failing grades policy statewide when public schools switched to 100% remote learning last year due to COVID-19.

She emphasized the effectiveness of students realizing that not doing required work not being engaged at all could result in having to repeat a course or grade level. “I’ve also told principals that if students are trying, we’re going to do everything in our power to make them be successful” and they shouldn’t get a failing grade.

Cotton said she believes student engagement will improve due to the outreach of principals, teachers and other school personnel to parents in home visits, phone calls and texts, meetings and online means. Over 20,000 such contacts have been made with parents of high school students and over 6,000 with parents of middle and elementary schools, plus over 500 contacts by interpreters with non-English speaking parents, she said.

Cotton said parents of nonengaged students considered at risk of failing classes, including some at risk of dropping out, are being contacted. Parents are told what they can do, but their input is sought.

Cotton said meetings are being held with students via Zoom and some are shown videos on how to use online learning platforms utilized at their schools. Some Wilkes schools switched to giving paper assignments because online platforms were overwhelming them and their parents.

Professional development for teachers on reaching students during remote learning will be offered. Some high schools offer alternate assignments as makeup work to get students caught up. Cotton said one-on-one talks with parents are the most effective among student engagement strategies initiated after the second nine-week grading period began.

Superintendent Mark Byrd said lack of student engagement in remote learning “is a huge source of stress for teachers in Wilkes County, North Carolina and across the nation… along with everything else going on in the world.”

Cotton said it’s hard to adjust to teaching remotely. “Teachers can see what’s not working in the classroom, but recognizing this with remote teaching takes a whole different skill set…. Having to reach out to children (to address lack of engagement) adds an extra layer of stress” for teachers, who already are overworked.

School board member Joan Caudill asked what consequences could be implemented for students who don’t turn in required assignments.

“I think the best recourse is to get parents involved” and for school personnel to provide parents with strategies to address issues such as unwillingness of students to use a computer for school work, said Cotton.

She said some principals asked about a legal recourse, such as charging truancy. “I don’t know if that is possible.” Report cards should be a wakeup call and bring home the message “that school counts this year,” she said.

Caudill said, “I think that if you make an effort with parents and you’re still not getting results, you probably need to look at a truancy-type reprimand.”

When principals met in September, said Cotton, principals in each grade level voiced concern about students not turning in assigned work and in some cases not doing any work. She said there was discussion then about pandemic-related and other challenges students face, including unemployed or sick parents and food and housing issues. “All of the change has made it hard for some students to even think about learning,” she added.

To facilitate remote learning, each student in the Wilkes schools was provided with a laptop or similar device and Wilkes Communications and Carolina West Wireless added numerous free WiFi hot spots in Wilkes. Cotton said digital systems used to deliver information don’t fit how all students learn, plus students need structure and support when learning new information regardless of their age.

“All of these things are holding our kids back from actually engaging with the content and learning and that is creating a big problem for the Wilkes County Schools,” she said.

Cotton said school officials hope students will become more engaged through parent and teacher encouragement and as a result of seeing how not doing their work impacts their grades.

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